Doris Betts, 79, an award-winning novelist and short-story writer whose characters grappled with religious faith, freedom, captivity, and original sin in tales steeped in the Southern literary tradition, died Saturday at her home in Pittsboro, N.C.

The cause was lung cancer, said her son Erskine.

Ms. Betts, who taught English literature and creative writing for 30 years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published six novels and three collections of short stories, one of which, Beasts of the Southern Wild, from 1973, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Her fiction was often compared to Flannery O'Connor's for its deceptively simple style and the way it evoked grand metaphysical conflicts in the prosaic events of people's lives. But where O'Connor's vision was often dark, hers was often hopeful, if only provisionally.

She gently complained in an interview with the magazine the Christian Century in 1997 that critics often overlooked the religious content of her work. She suspected, she said, that whether or not reviewers recognized it depended on whether they had a religious outlook.

Her novel Souls Raised From the Dead won the Southern Book Award, which is presented by newspaper book editors and reviewers in the South, and was named one of the 20 best books of 1994 by the New York Times.

In addition to her son Erskine, her survivors include another son, David, and three grandchildren. Her husband and a daughter, Lewellyn, died within the last few years.

— N.Y. Times News Service